Myth of the Week: Arachne

Monday, April 2nd, 2012

One of the earliest Greeks myths I remember is the story of the artist Arachne, whose name means “spider” in Greek.  Back then, it seemed fairly standard: hubris, a confrontation with a god, transformation as punishment (to, unsurprisingly, a spider), with some natural explanation thrown in (this is why spiders spin webs!)

A spider's web, with raindrops on it. Photo by Wusel007

But when I got a bit older, and read Ovid’s full version of the myth, Arachne quickly became one of my favorite heroines.  First of all, she’s one of the few ancient females who isn’t a princess or beautiful nymph.  She’s the daughter of a tradesman, a Lydian dye-merchant, with no noble connections, nor extraordinary looks.  She is famous, Ovid tells us, for her skill in weaving alone.  I particularly love his description of her at her loom—how gracefully and deftly she handles the threads, how the nymphs abandon their fields and forests to come stare in awe.  I have always found it so pleasurable to watch someone do something that they are truly gifted at, and Ovid captures that feeling perfectly.

Arachne is relentlessly proud of her excellence, and defiant in the face of attempts to cow her into modesty.  She is, she says, as skilled as Athena in her work.  Why should she lie and say she is not?  There aren’t too many heroines in ancient literature who are so single-minded and proud–usually those characteristics are identified with men like Achilles and Ajax.  In fact, that comparison does her a bit of a disservice, since her rebelliousness and pride are actually much more deliberate and intellectual than either of those two heroes (much as I love them).  A better comparison might be another favorite of mine, Pentheus, the ill-fated King of Thebes, who loses his life standing up to Dionysus.  Like him, Arachne dares to criticize the gods, and doesn’t back down even when threatened.  Foolish?  Maybe.  But also principled and courageous.

Athena vanquishing the giant Enceladus

The gods, of course, never like to be challenged, and Athena is known for being particularly vicious towards rivals. She decides to pay a visit to Arachne, disguised as an old woman, warning the girl that she must learn to acknowledge the goddess’ superiority.  But Arachne dismisses her–why should she acknowledge Athena?  She hasn’t met the goddess, nor seen her weaving.  And she has supreme faith in her own powers.  “Let her come!” she says.  And Athena (the gods do love their dramatic revelations) throws off her disguise declaring “She is here!”

The contest is on.  And it’s a testament to Ovid’s skill as a poet that what should be exceedingly boring (a long, lingering description of the two women weaving) becomes an edge-of-the-seat fireworks display.  Ovid spends every bit of his prodigious skill evoking the vivid colors and beauty of the materials, before moving on to the astonishing pictures taking shape on the rival tapestries.  Because, of course, this isn’t just about beauty: it’s an intellectual debate about whether humans have the right to challenge gods.

Athena attacking Arachne, after the contest

Athena’s cloth is a gorgeous depiction of the gods in their full glory, looking on at the scene of her triumph over Poseidon in the contest for Athens.  In the four corners of the tapestry, she weaves four admonitory scenes of humans who dared to compare themselves with gods, and the bad ends that each came to.  But Arachne’s cloth shows something else entirely: not the gods in triumph, but the gods as clowns.  Each part reveals the gods behaving badly.  There are several episodes of Zeus in goatish pursuit of nymphs, along with other undignified affairs of the immortals.  Her message is clear: the gods are not all they say they are; they are ignoble, embarrassing, childish. More flawed, in fact, than humans. Arachne had guts.

When it comes time to judge the quality of the two works, it would have been easy for Ovid to simply have Arachne lose. She is human, after all, and so it would be expected that her work would be lesser. But Ovid doesn’t do that.  Arachne’s work, he says, is utterly flawless.  Not even Athena’s envy can find a single error in it.  The girl, if she hasn’t won, has at the very least tied. Athena is utterly enraged–both by the work’s perfection, and by its blasphemous content.   One might think that as the goddess of reason and intelligence, Athena would find a way to teach the girl a lesson, to argue her into submission.  But instead, she only proves Arachne’s point that the gods are imperfect and irrational: she tears Arachne’s beautiful weaving all to pieces.  Can there be a greater testament to Arachne’s intellectual triumph?  The great Athena is speechless, reduced to a tantrum-throwing child.

Arachne as a spider (a particularly creepy depiction, I think)

In the version of the story that I read when I was young, Athena turns the girl into a spider at this point, as punishment.  But the full version is much darker, and more interesting.  Athena, after tearing apart the tapestry, seizes the spindle and beats the girl with it.  Arachne is now herself enraged, and decides to hang herself.  It’s a moment that doesn’t read very well in our modern world, where suicide is often equated with giving up.  But in the context of the ancient world, suicide was what warriors did, when they refused to accept defeat.  It said, in effect: only I can defeat myself.  And in that sense, it is a perfect fit for bold, uncompromising Arachne.

But Athena is a god, so she gets the last word.   She pities the dying girl (I like to think that she finally recognizes the toughness of a kindred spirit), and saves Arachne’s life, transforming her to a spider.  Arachne is allowed to keep her extraordinary skill at weaving–or maybe Athena lacks the power to take it from her.  What Arachne thinks of this we never find out, but Arachne and her descendants continue to spin their beautiful, miraculous creations to this day.

Another famous weaver: Odysseus' wife Penelope at her loom

I recognize that there is, of course, another way to read this story–as a tale of immoderate hubris, of foolish, reckless arrogance.  But even read that way, I still can’t help rooting for Arachne–the ordinary girl with the soul of a warrior, who was able to beat a goddess.

Myth of the Week: Callisto

Monday, March 12th, 2012

Today’s Myth of the Week is in honor of Latin teacher extraordinaire Walter, and his delightful students. Good luck on the upcoming National Latin exam!

Galileo knew his mythology.  After discovering the four largest moons of Jupiter, he decided to name them, fittingly, after four famous loves of Zeus (Jupiter, to Romans): Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. Of these four, Callisto’s story is the least well known, but maybe the most fascinating. Callisto (Kallisto in the Greek) was an Arcadian nymph, whose name literally means “most beautiful.”   Her father was the infamous and cruel Lycaon, whom Jupiter changed into a wolf as punishment for his savage and “wolfish” behavior.  He is often cited as a mythological precursor of the werewolf.

Lycaeon and Zeus

Zeus transforming Lycaeon to a wolf

Callisto preferred the woods to her father’s house.  She loved to hunt and became a favorite of the goddess Artemis, joining her band of nymphs and swearing to remain a virgin eternally.  Although today we might regard this as overly stringent, in the world of ancient mythology virginity meant freedom.  As one of Artemis’ virgins, she would never have to marry a man of her father’s choosing, and could remain without domestic responsibilities in the woods her entire life.

Unfortunately, like many beautiful nymphs, she caught the eye of Zeus.  By this point in myth history Zeus was getting cannier in his disguises.  Rather than transforming into a bull, or swan, Zeus decided to appear to the girl as Artemis herself.  Ovid describes the two women talking intimately, then “Artemis” begins kissing Callisto.


Artemis, goddess of the hunt, photo by Steffen Heilfort

It’s an electrifying moment, and an unusual one; there are very few surviving mentions of women loving women from the ancient world, simply because nearly all of the ancient writers were men.  The references that do survive are generally dismissive or disgusted.  But that is not that case here: Callisto welcomes her mistress’ passionate embrace.  For a moment it almost seems like we have stumbled upon a wonderful secret history.

But the audience knows better, because it isn’t Artemis at all–it’s Zeus.  The story gave its ancient readers just enough time to be intrigued, or titillated, or shocked before setting the world “right” again.  Callisto’s error is played for laughs: she thinks it’s Artemis who she likes, but fake out!  It’s really Zeus, who she doesn’t!

Zeus disguised as Artemis, with Callisto

Call me humorless, but I’m not laughing.  Zeus reveals himself, rapes Callisto, then vanishes.  The girl is doubly distraught—not only about the assault, but about the breaking of her oath of virginity to Artemis.  (This being the ancient world, it doesn’t matter that it was unwilling—the oath is broken all the same). She is all the more distressed when she learns that she is pregnant, and must hide the pregnancy from her sharp-eyed mistress as long as possible.

A suspicious Callisto, with Zeus-as-Artemis. By Rubens

We can see where this is going.  Artemis is notoriously unsympathetic and uncompromising about transgressions—witness her punishment of poor Actaeon for accidentally glimpsing her in the bath: he’s torn apart by his own dogs.  When Callisto takes off her dress to bathe, Artemis notices her belly.  She flies into a rage, and is joined by Hera, who is herself angry at Callisto for having slept with her husband. As usual, Hera doesn’t care whether it was consensual.  She turns the girl into a bear and Artemis kills her.  Zeus (where were you five minutes ago?) swoops down to rescue Callisto’s unborn child, a boy named Arcas.  And, in homage to the boy’s mother takes Callisto’s body and sets it in the sky as the “Great Bear”—Ursa Major. Her son, when he dies, joins her, becoming Ursa Minor.

Artemis discovers that Callisto is pregnant

That’s one version of the story—in another, Callisto flees into the woods in her new ursine form, living out her days as an animal.  Fast forward fifteen years or so.  Callisto’s son, Arcas, has grown up a gifted hunter, just like his mother.  He is wandering in the woods one day, and spots a bear.  Hoisting his javelin, he prepares to kill it with a single blow.  But as he is about to hurl the spear, Zeus stops him, not wanting him to be guilty of the sin of killing his own mother.  He whisks the two of them up to the heavens, transforming them into constellations.

Ursa Major

Ursa Major, the Great Bear

In later generations, Zeus’ embrace of Callisto while disguised as Artemis was the part of the story that really seemed to grab people’s imaginations.  Partially that’s because it was Ovid’s version, but surely also because of its frisson of transgression.  But for me the most moving and tragic part of the story is the moment after, when Callisto realizes what is really happening.  That she’s been tricked by Zeus, and is about to lose everything she holds dear—Artemis’ favor, her fidelity to her oath, her place in the world, even her humanity.  Becoming a constellation just doesn’t seem like recompense enough.

A final, completely different, thought.  Artemis seems to have been particularly associated with bears, and at her sanctuary at Brauron young girls would serve as “little bears” in a ritual to honor the goddess.  It’s a much nicer face of the goddess than Callisto sees.

I’m excited to announce that tomorrow (March 13th) is the kick-off of my US book tour.  If you’re in the area and interested, please join me!

Myth of the Week: Orpheus

Monday, March 5th, 2012

Most of the heroes in ancient Greek myth were known either for their exploits in war or their victories over terrifying monsters.  But two of the most famous ancient figures made their mark in other ways—Daedalus, the master craftsman, and Orpheus the great musician.  I love the stories of both of these men, but thanks to the excellent suggestion of reader Simon, I’m going to start with Orpheus.

Orpheus’ origins are obscure.  He was associated with the region of Thrace, north and east of Greece, and was most often said to be the child of the muse Calliope.  In some versions of the story his father is a king of Thrace, in others it’s Apollo, god of music himself.

Mosaic of Orpheus taming wild animals with his music

Orpheus was born with a god-like gift for music, able to sing and play the lyre so beautifully that even the rocks themselves wept. It was a popular trope in art, both ancient and modern, to show the great musician surrounded by formerly savage animals made tame by the sweetness of his music.

Orpheus was also a favorite subject of poets, especially since in the ancient world poems and songs synonymous.  That’s why Homer asks the muse to “sing of the rage of Achilles,” and why Vergil tells us he is going to “sing of arms and a man.”  The Iliad literally means “the song of Troy” (“Ili” means Troy, and “ad” here is the ancestor of our modern word “ode”).  Orpheus was the incarnation of a writer’s power, proof that you don’t need a club, or magic sandals–you could change the world with your words alone.

Orpheus enchanting the wild beasts, including a unicorn

Of course, any author who did take on Orpheus’ story had a true artistic challenge—were they going to try to create an example of one of Orpheus’ legendary songs?  I always find this a fascinating moment in art, when a character who is meant to be a genius at something must finally reveal their work.  Characteristically, Ovid dares to write for Orpheus—Vergil, ever modest, does not.  I love both of those ancient poets, but I have to say that if I were forced to pick one of them for the voice of Orpheus it would be Vergil.  I would believe it that he made the stones weep.

Orpheus falls in love with the beautiful nymph Eurydice, and the two make plans to wed. But on their wedding day, Eurydice steps on a snake, which bites her.  In some versions of the story, she doesn’t see the snake because she is dancing with her handmaidens; in Vergil’s version, she is fleeing Aristaeus, a young demi-god attempting to rape her.  Either way she is killed, and Orpheus is stricken with terrible and all-consuming grief.

Eurydice bitten by the snake

Vergil’s description of the mourning Orpheus is hauntingly beautiful, as he sits alone on the shore singing to his lost wife.  Part of what makes it so arresting is that Vergil addresses Eurydice herself, “he was singing to you, sweet wife” making the reader, Orpheus and Vergil all one.  He also echoes the sound of the “you” (“te,” in Latin) throughout the line, mirroring the repetitive nature of Orpheus’ longing.  It’s the type of effect that is nearly impossible to capture in translation, so here are the lines, in Latin, with the “te” sounds highlighted:

te, dulcis coniunx, te solo in litore secum,
te veniente die, te decedente canebat.

You, sweet wife, he was singing of you, by himself on the lonely shore,
you as day was coming, you as day was departing.

Orpheus decides on a desperate course of action—he will go into death itself to try to retrieve Eurydice.  Armed only with his lyre and his beautiful voice, Orpheus makes his way past every terrifying danger the underworld holds, from Cerberus to the crossing of the river Styx.  Finally he arrives at the court of Hades and Persephone, and begins to sing.  Ovid has an amazing description of the whole underworld stopping to listen—even those eternally tormented souls in the pit of Tartarus.  Tantalus no longer reaches for food and water, and Sisyphus sits upon his rock.  Moved to tears, the king and queen agree to release Eurydice on their one, famous condition: that as he leads Eurydice up to life again, he not turn to look at her.

Orpheus losing Eurydice to death a second time

As a child, I always found this part inexplicable—why couldn’t he look at her?  Were they just being cruel?  But as I got older I began to appreciate its allegorical resonance, like the story of Psyche, about human nature, and doubt, and trust.  It’s easy to say I would not have looked.  But if I really think about it, I can name half a dozen times in my life when I did, metaphorically, look back. Fortunately, I have never had to suffer the consequences Orpheus did for my fears.

Just as they are almost safely away, Orpheus is overcome with doubt about whether she is truly behind him.  Without thinking, he turns to look.  Her faithful shade immediately vanishes, and the devastated Orpheus attempts to return to Hades and rescue her again.  But this time the boatman Charon refuses to carry him across the river.  He sits on the shore starving, hoping for death, so that he may join Eurydice.  But the gods will not let him die. Reluctantly, he returns to the upper world, finding solace only in his music.  I am no musician myself, but I know how often I have turned to songs for comfort and understanding.  I love that this has been a part of humanity for as long as our myths go back.

A maenad attacks Orpheus, who clutches his lyre

Ovid adds an interesting twist to the story at this point.  He says that many women sought to replace Eurydice in Orpheus’ affections, but that Orpheus spurned them all, and turned instead to men, which was the origin of homosexuality in Thrace.  A fascinating detail, that he doesn’t delve into further.  But it does give him a transition to Orpheus’ unfortunate, grisly end.  A group of Maenads, female followers of Bacchus, are enraged by Orpheus’ rejection of women, and in their wine-sodden frenzy decide to tear him to pieces–a version of “if we can’t have him, no one can!”

As they approach him, Orpheus doesn’t run, only keeps playing his beautiful, mournful songs.  The Maenads throw rocks at him, but even the rocks are in love with Orpheus, and fall far short.  It is only when the Maenads begin to scream and beat their drums, drowning out Orpheus’ song, that they are able to attack him—and literally tear him apart.  Ovid, never one to spare a gruesome image, has Orpheus’ head float down the river, still singing.

Nymphs find the head of Orpheus

Eventually, all ends well.  Orpheus is reunited with his Eurydice in the underworld where, Ovid says, they may walk together, leading or following, and looking back as they please.  In framing the story this way, Ovid doesn’t use the allegorical resonance of looking back as a failure of trust.  Instead, he makes the story about the cruelty of life that can keep lovers apart.  Here, in the underworld, there is no bar to love.

The story of Orpheus and Eurydice has inspired numerous artists working in film, on the stage, and in print.  Most recently, I enjoyed Sarah Ruhl’s play “Eurydice” which takes the perspective of the story’s heroine, and adds the character of Eurydice’s dead father. Eurydice is poignantly torn between life and her lover, and staying with her beloved father.

I wish you all a very happy start to March, whichever direction you happen to be looking.

Myth of the Week: Hyacinthus

Monday, December 12th, 2011

Recently, a friend and I were talking about how the homosexual undertones (or overtones) are often bowdlerized from retellings of Greek myths.  As children, we had both been puzzled by the story of Ganymede, the beautiful youth whom Zeus falls in love with and, in the form of an eagle, abducts to Mount Olympus to be his lover and cupbearer.  In the version I read, there was no mention of Zeus’ desire, and I remember feeling confused as to how Zeus knew he was such an excellent cupbearer just by looking at him, and why cupbearers were so hard to come by, and furthermore, why did it make Hera so mad?

All this is by way of leading up to today’s story about the youth Hyacinthus and the god Apollo, which was the first myth where I realized that the two men were definitely lovers, not just “close companions.”

Apollo and the dying Hyacinthus, with the fateful discus on the ground. Alexander Kiselev.

Hyacinthus was a beautiful Spartan youth, beloved by the god Apollo.  As the good Spartan he was, Hyacinthus loved athletics, and one day the two decided to practice throwing the discus.  Apollo went first, sending the disc flying up to “scatter the clouds” as Ovid says.  Hyacinthus ran laughing after it, thinking to catch the disc, but instead it hit him in the head, killing him.  Ovid has a beautiful passage about Apollo holding the dying youth, desperately trying to use his skill with medicine to keep him alive.  But even the mighty god of healing could not save the one he loved.

In honor of his lover, Apollo makes a flower spring up from Hyacinthus’ blood.  Confusingly, this flower isn’t actually what we today call a hyacinth.  Most sources agree that it was most likely an iris or a larkspur, since the myth tells us that Apollo writes on the flower the sound of his grief (Ai, Ai).  The iris, with its yellow markings on the purple leaf, seems the likeliest to me, though theoi.com disagrees, offering this helpful visual aid on behalf of the larkspur.  (On a side note, some say this flower, whichever it was, actually sprang from the dead Ajax’s blood, not Hyacinthus’. In that case, the markings spell out AI, in honor of Aias, Ajax’s Greek name.)

An iris. I know, I don't see the "AI" either. Photo taken by Danielle Langlois, July 2005, Forillon National Park of Canada, Quebec, Canada

In a second, quite popular variant of the myth, Hyacinthus’ death is actually a murderous crime of passion.  Turns out that not only was Apollo in love with Hyacinthus, but so was Zephyrus, the west wind.  Seeing how attached Apollo and Hyacinthus were, he grew jealous, and in an old-fashioned twist on “If I can’t have him no one can” he deliberately blows the discus into Hyacinthus’ path, killing him.  This version emphasizes the terrifying pettiness of the gods, and the dangers of mixing with them, even if–especially if–they love you.  Like nearly all ancient love affairs between mortals and divinities, it ends in tragedy for the mortal.

Apollo and a swooning, strategically modest Hyacinthus

Whenever I tell this story, I always wish that there were more of it.  Its final image of Apollo cradling Hyacinthus is beautiful and sad, but we don’t know anything about Hyacinthus and Apollo’s love beyond that moment, how they came to meet, or who Hyacinthus was.  It’s almost more of a triptych then a story, three moments caught in amber: the youth and Apollo happy together, the youth chasing the discus, the lover grieving over his dying beloved.  It’s enough to make me feel sympathy for Apollo, who has never been a particular favorite of mine.

Apollo catches the falling youth. Jean Broc

Aside from its tragedy, Hyacinthus’ story also has a historical significance.  The “-nth” suffix in Hyacinthus indicates that the name is actually quite old, a remnant of some sort of pre-Greek language, from before the development of ancient Greek culture as we know it.  Other examples include “Corinth” and the word “labyrinth” (see the Minotaur myth).

Some speculate (the Oxford Classical Dictionary included), that the story of Apollo tragically killing Hyacinthus is actually symbolic.  Given the antiquity of his name, it’s likely that Hyacinthus was some sort of older native nature deity, who was replaced by the Olympian Apollo. The myth preserves this cultural change in story form, having the new god “kill” the old one.

Classical statue of Apollo, known as "Apollo Belvedere"

Either way, Hyacinthus became an important religious figure, who was particularly worshipped in Sparta during a three-day festival, called Hyacinthia.  The festival included mourning rites for the youth’s death, then celebration of his rebirth as a flower. In this regard, Hyacinthus seems similar to the god Adonis, and the eastern Attis, all three of whom are youths who die in order to ensure the earth’s fertility—the male versions of Persephone. The festival was important enough to the Spartans that they were said to have broken off a military campaign in order to return home and celebrate it.

Vase painting of a discus-thrower, with other athletic gear.

A final story about Apollo and Hyacinthus.  Though the myth has had a long life in visual art, it hasn’t been nearly as popular in other types of media.  The only exception I could find was an opera composed by the eleven-year-old Mozart, entitled “Apollo et Hyacinthus.” The libretto for the piece was written by a priest, Rufinus Widl, who apparently found the story too scandalous because he invented a sister for Hyacinthus, Melia, to replace Hyacinthus as Apollo’s love interest.  In this version, the youth’s death is more tragic to the family than Apollo, affecting the god only because it is an impediment to wooing the sister.

The lovely thing about myths is how adaptable they are, how much they can be shaped and molded by each new teller.  But there is bending, and then there is breaking.  To remove Apollo and Hyacinthus’ love from this story is to take out the spine of the tale, rendering it unrecognizable.  There is certainly a beautiful story to be told about a lover who kills his beloved’s kinsmen (as Shakespeare knew when Romeo killed Tybalt), but that is another story, not this one.  Hyacinthus and Apollo (and Zephyrus), do well enough on their own.

Thanks to reader Sam for the suggestion!

Myth of the Week: Echo and Narcissus, part II

Monday, November 28th, 2011

The myth of the week today continues the story of Echo and the beautiful youth Narcissus, most infamous of self-lovers.

Narcissus was the mortal child of the nymph Liriope and the river-god Cephisus. When he was young, his mother consulted the prophet Teiresias about his life, hoping to hear that her son would be long-lived.  Teiresias answered that the boy would have a long and happy life, “If he never knows himself.”  This response would have been especially riddlesome in the ancient world where the exhortation to “know thyself” was revered, even carved onto the temple of the oracle at Delphi.

Narcissus grew up to be so beautiful that all who saw him, boys and girls alike, desired him.   But he spurned them all, preferring to wander by himself on the hillsides and in the forests.  In this he seems to bear some resemblance to another famous looker, Adonis, who rejected even the goddess of love.  Interestingly, both young men end up transformed into flowers.

Venus awakening Adonis, John William Waterhouse

One of the most enthusiastic of Narcissus’ admirers was the nymph Echo, now robbed of her voice.  She took to trailing after him, pitifully hoping that he might speak, so that she could respond.  This was a favorite aspect of the story for ancient authors—finding clever ways for Narcissus to say something rejecting, so that Echo could repeat the last part of it lovingly.  Something like “I don’t want you to touch me!” “Touch me!”  The frustration on either side could certainly be played for the comic—and I can’t help thinking of Helena and Demetrius in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Yet Narcissus continued to refuse her.  Rejected, love-stricken and ashamed, Echo hid herself in caves, wasting away from unrequited love until there was nothing left of her but bones and her voice.  A sad end for such a once-spirited girl.  Narcissus, of course, didn’t notice a thing.

Dead Narcissus, with wasting Echo in the background

Soon after, Narcissus catches sight of himself for the first time in the surface of a pond, and falls instantly in love with his own image—which always serves as a reminder of how scarce mirrors were in the ancient world.  Nowadays, Narcissus would have fallen for himself a lot sooner, maybe even while still in the cradle.  Seems like there’s an update of the myth there, just begging to be written….

In one interesting variant, Narcissus’ self-love is actually the result of a curse. One of Narcissus’ rejected lovers, the youth Ameinias, kills himself in despair, and with his last breath calls upon the goddess Nemesis to punish Narcissus for his coldness.  The dreadful goddess comes up with a perfect torment, condemning Narcissus to fall in love with the only person he can’t have: himself.  Upon seeing his reflection in a pool of water, Narcissus is so entranced that he forgets to eat or sleep, slowly dying of self-neglect.  Echo, ever loyal, echoes his cries of pain with her own.  At last, rather than seeing such beauty lost, the gods transform the boy into a flower, the narcissus.

A narcissus

Narcissus’ story has been a popular one in literature.  Ancient authors, Ovid in particular, delighted in Narcissus’ fatuous confusion over why the boy in the water would not come to him.  They linger in their descriptions of him throwing out his arms, trying to reach through the water, weeping and taking heart from the fact that the image wept also.  It is a breath of fresh air then, when Pausanias tartly remarks: “It is utterly stupid to think that a man old enough to be in love would not be able to distinguish a man from his reflection.”  Indeed.  I prefer the versions of the story where Narcissus knows that the reflection is himself, and dies from grief at the sheer impossibility of his love.

Narcissus languishing by his reflection, Nicolas Bernardt Lepicie

Narcissus also shows up in more modern works, including a verse in A. E. Housman’s “A Shropshire Lad,” where the reflective pool is the speaker’s own eyes.  Herman Hesse’s novel “Narcissus and Goldmund” is also distantly inspired by the myth, with Narcissus fixated upon intellect and the life of the mind, rather than his own face.

Narcissus (I’m sure he would be glad to hear) was also quite popular in art.  There was something about the languishing youth that proved catnip to artists through the ages.  According to The Oxford Classical Dictionary there are over fifty murals on this theme from Pompeii alone, and he was a common subject in Renaissance and Pre-Raphaelite art as well.

Last, but definitely not least, there is psychology. Thanks to his eponymous personality disorder, Narcissus’ name has become a household word, maybe even equaling Achilles’ famous heel.  The DSM-IV describes Narcissistic Personality Disorder as:  “A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood.” According to a recent book “The Narcissism Epidemic” the disorder is on the rise, with 1 in 10 people young people showing clinical signs of the personality disorder.  If it’s true, we must have made Nemesis quite annoyed indeed.

Narcissus in the 16th century, Caravaggio

But back to the ancient world.  The Greeks and Romans were keen appreciators of beauty, especially male.  Though there are certainly myths revolving around a woman’s beauty (Helen and the Trojan War, for instance), there seem to be many more about gorgeous, and often tragic, young men.  Narcissus takes his place in a firm pantheon that includes Ganymede, Hyacinthus, Achilles, Hylas, Paris, Endymion, and many more, all with their own interesting stories.  As a final note, writing this post has made me much more self-conscious about any time spent in front of the mirror….